How abruptly the fun can stop. Rory McIlroy’s buildup had included a series of Long Island golf outings in the company of friends, in a re-acquaintance with an element of the sport that is lost when it becomes a professional pursuit. A return to the competitive scene delivered a reminder of its harsh realities; on a brutal opening day at the US Open, where stellar names did little to mask their frustrations, McIlroy stood over an 11-foot putt on the 18th needing to make it to break 80.
The Northern Irishman’s attempt was to slide by, ensuring the matching of his highest single round score in a major championship. US Open Thursdays have been curiously cruel to McIlroy recently; this 80 follows a 78 in 2017 and 77 two years ago. Shinnecock’s par of 70 adds further bruising context.
The damage this time was done in the early stages. Starting at the 10th, McIlroy found himself six over after only five holes having produced back-to-back double bogeys. There was another at the 1st, his 10th, to compound a first half of 42. McIlroy sought to repair some of the damage with birdies at the 5th and 6th but those shots were handed back to the course before his scorecard was signed.
It would be unwise to ignore the extenuating circumstances. Blue skies and piercing sunshine barely disguised a menacing venue, with the United States Golf Association exacting payback 12 months after the playing of its marquee championship. Brooks Koepka triumphed at Erin Hills at an aggregate of 16 under par. Here, a whipping wind added to the difficulty levels. “At least some of the pin positions were on the greens” was the cutting assessment of Jason Day after his 79.
Tiger Woods took seven at the 1st, with subsequent steadying of his round undone by a four-putt at the 13th. Woods – a muttering, frustrated Woods by close of play – was to join those beaten by Shinnecock, as proved by a 78. He found only seven greens in regulation. “I hit a lot of good iron shots but they were conservative and I just didn’t putt well,” he said. “It is tough out there but I shouldn’t be making two double bogeys and a triple.”
Dustin Johnson, who partnered the 14-times major winner, tied the 18-hole lead at one under. He has Ian Poulter, Scott Piercey and Russell Henley for company. Justin Rose’s 71 left him only two from the summit. Henrik Stenson equalled his Ryder Cup partner’s score late on.
McIlroy is too fine a player to be posting numbers such as 80 in golf’s most illustrious events. The 29-year-old looked out of sorts in demeanour, with the key question whether that was a consequence of his on-course troubles or the cause of them. What changes between the free-flowing, ebullient McIlroy at his best and episodes such as this, the first round of the 118th US Open, remains one of golf’s great mysteries.
His playing partners suffered problems of their own. Phil Mickelson’s agonising wait for a US Open win may well stretch to at least 2019 after he slipped to a 77. The left-hander could muster only a single birdie. Jordan Spieth, the third member of this much-heralded grouping, signed for a 78. Spieth had opened bogey-triple bogey after air mailing the green from an adjacent bunker at the 11th.
“It was just blah,” admitted Spieth. “It wasn’t fun; it was not fun. I’m not happy with my score at all. If I’m upset with anything, it is with the decision I made on that bunker shot. I was trying too hard to get the stroke back I lost on the previous hole. All in all I ended up making six there. So I was four over through two and trying to figure out how to shoot four over on the day.”
Poulter’s brilliant renaissance continues apace, though he retained a cautious outlook. “I feel confident, I feel happy,” said the Houston Open champion. “I feel happy off the golf course and it makes that a lot easier on the golf course.
“I don’t want to get carried away. This is day one of four extremely tough days and three bad holes on this golf course can take you home pretty quick. So a great start is what it is but there’s a very long way to go in this tournament.”
Spare a thought for Scott Gregory, however, the 23-year-old Englishman who found 92 beside his name at the end of day one. To his immense credit the 2016 Amateur champion took up his media duties. “I’ll forget aboutthis quickly,” he said. He may take solace in being far from the only one needing quick deletion of a gruesome memory.